Written by Brooke Folliot
An online university degree gives learners access to education, often at a lower price, but the influx of online graduates may not necessarily bolster the economy. While there are some institutions that are now even pushing forth to offering the next level of education by providing online graduate schools for Master’s seekers, it is still not able to make a strong case that producing higher levels of online-educated graduates could result in an economic lift. Although the stigma of an online degree is slowly lifting, hiring managers are still more likely to recruit graduates of traditionally administered universities. Meanwhile, economic factors and easy access to online programs have caused a sharp increase of enrollment in online programs. Whereas traditional programs benefit from a tried and true approach and a longstanding reputation, the quality of online programs is often called into question.Despite the questioning of online education quality, such programs have seen a significant increase in enrollments. The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning studied 2,500 American universities and colleges, showing an increase of nearly one million students in online programs compared to the year before. Additionally, three-quarters of the higher learning institutions reported an increased demand for online programs. Instrumental in this rise is the economic downturn and lack of jobs, causing students to turn to convenient and affordable educational programs to gain new skills and qualify for new fields or higher level jobs.
The attraction to online education goes beyond economics. A 2011 New York Times article refers to Stanford University’s placement of several computer science courses online. This particular program was met with an astounding response of 300,000 registrants and millions of video viewings in a short four weeks. In general, many students find online learning engaging and flexible. Learning at their own pace allows them to stop and review content or fast forward through already mastered concepts.
The question remains, however, whether the rise of enrollment in online programs is good for the economy. Certainly, higher numbers of online classes translate into more jobs for online university instructors, administrators, web developers and instructional designers. But what does this mean for the rest of the economy? A U.S. News article discusses the reluctance of many human resources managers to hire graduates of online programs. Hiring managers’ perspectives on online programs have not transformed as quickly as the rate of online learning popularity. Still, although many prefer alumni from top traditional programs, employers are slowly warming up to graduates of accredited online universities.
While employers are also making a transition in how to they perceive online education, some of the public are even having similar questions of perception, particularly around both the role and practices of for-profit online colleges and universities. In the past couple of years, for-profit universities (such as Argosy University, Kaplan University and the Art Institutes) have had many students default on their loans due to the inability to pay the price tag of their convenient education. Since these colleges and universities receive the money of their students up-front, they pay little mind as to how they resolve their personal debt; that is between the student and lender. Critics have cited how some of these companies have used predatory practices in their recruiting of students. For example, a tactic that has been used historically targets students that may have made poor education decisions in their past and tells these students that an education from one of their schools could serve as the panacea for the effects of these poor decisions. As not all for-profits online educators may behave this way, an internal industry struggle is necessary to address these issues as online education becomes more accepted. But for-profit colleges and universities also have a grand opportunity not only to preserve a positive public perception, but also to potentially team up with non-profit learning institutions to combine best practices and make online education more effective in educating its students. Since for-profit education companies already have a streamlined means of operating and marketing (especially to the non-traditional student market), and also embody an entrepreneurial spirit that some non-profit institutions may not possess, there is a great opportunity to leverage skills sets and enhance how education is administered in the future.
At the present time, institutes of higher learning are also still faced with important questions about the quality of online learning. Presently, the job market is more willing to hire an entry-level online graduate in accounting than a high-level marketing executive with an online graduate degree. Discussions about whether certain topics can be covered adequately online without a hands-on component or face-to-face interaction are also common. Many in the field of education conclude that a blended learning approach is most effective in competitive fields, allowing learners to study at a personal pace online and then ask questions or practice key skills in a classroom setting.
Technological advances have made it easier to learn new skills, access information and assess knowledge. For this advancement to benefit the economy, employers must be willing to hire online university graduates. While online university enrollment rates are rapidly increasing, the U.S. economy is seeing a transitional period in which online learning universities work to improve the quality and reputation of their programs, and employers slowly gain trust in this new learning structure. The impact of on-line higher education on the economy is probably not high right now with some new college graduates not finding employment. But, if the growing pains discussed here are addressed successfully there will be increasing effects as the economy strengthens.
Opinion articles about education and